NEW YORK — When news got out that the most pursued young director of the moment, Michael Mayer, was taking on a Broadway revival of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," a proportionate amount of incredulity--you know, the theatrical equivalent of "good grief"--went murmuring across the community. But we were amused.
Then we learned that Anthony Rapp, who created the character who documented his downtown friends dying of AIDS in "Rent," had been cast to play sweet, hapless Charlie himself. And we were intrigued. When it was announced that B.D. Wong, best known for his Tony-winning embodiment of the seductive transvestite in "M. Butterfly," would be taking up Linus' precious blue blanket to be an Asian American little brother of crabby Anglo Lucy, and Stanley Wayne Mathis, an African American actor, was to be Schroeder, we actually found ourselves anticipating whatever such a collection of edgy talents had in mind for this boggling unlikely project.
Thus, we smiled when a similarly incredulous Charles M. Schulz said this week how "amazed" he is that these people want to devote themselves to another look at Clark Gesner's modest 1967 off-Broadway show and community-theater money machine based on his massively popular "Peanuts" comic strip. He said--not entirely in false modesty--that, surely "they must have better things to do."
Alas, indeed they must. The show that opened at the Ambassador Theatre Thursday night is not so much overproduced as overqualified, not just family-friendly but family-overbearing. Everyone works very hard to be very loving about this very, very slim material. But, like Charlie's stubborn kite, it just doesn't catch the breeze.
Whatever Mayer and two of the original off-Broadway producers had in mind, it was not really much at all. The cast--especially Kristin Chenoweth's eerily self-possessed little demon of a Sally--is bright and expert at achieving just the right "Peanuts" worried look. David Gallo's sets, while not nearly as inspired as his designs for "Bunny, Bunny" and "Jackie," have the engaging cutout and crayon look of the beloved cartoon. Michael Krass' costumes are marvels at making grown-ups look like tots without also making them look like morons. Considering the creative team involved, we could not have expected less.
But Mayer, who staged "Side Man," "A View From the Bridge," "Stupid Kids" and "Triumph of Love" in the last 18 months, has spoken in interviews about his desire to use the familiar script as "more than a blueprint, less than a bible." But oh, for a lot less reverence. The press has been provided with a hilariously serious amount of scholarly information on the show, including lengthy psychological profiles of each character and an in-depth timeline that tells us, for example, that the first time Charlie was called "wishy-washy" was Dec. 3, 1952.
We also get many more annotations of the changes than we have ever been offered for deconstructions of "Hamlet" and postmodern reconfigurations of the Greeks. People who follow such things may be fascinated to know that seven of the 14 original musical numbers have been revised, 17 of the original 42 sketches have been cut, 21 sketches have been added from strips since 1967, the character Patty has been changed to Sally and the musical supervisor, Andrew Lippa, has added two new songs.
In other words, they huff and they puff--and they punch the lines until we hurt for them--but they still can't blow most of this skimpy stuff into an evening that we can't imagine anyone over 10 would find enthralling.
But Rapp is endearing as poor Charlie, the boy who seems even to bore himself, standing there with his arms hanging at his side and his trademark "zzzz" shirt and a plaintive new pop music catch in his voice. Chenoweth is a kick as his sister Sally, a child who seems to exist within her own helium-driven molecular structure.
Ilana Levine makes a delightfully crabby Lucy, though Gallo's oversized chair doesn't help keep her from looking a bit too much like a Lily Tomlin character. Wong is bliss as Linus, the tiny philosopher who, in one of Mayer's inspired moments, does an Astaire dance with his security blanket. Mathis is a little stolid as the classical-music-loving Schroeder, whose big song, the new "Beethoven Day," is turned, annoyingly, into gospel.
Roger Bart, in tennis whites and a black spot on his back, understands exactly how to scratch an itch with his teeth as Snoopy. And his Red Baron number gives Gallo his only big chance to turn the scenery on its head, which he does with panache.
The multicultural casting is a nonissue, as it should be. The evening runs just two hours. It's all pleasant enough, sort of, though we doubt it will be around to celebrate 'Peanuts' " 50th anniversary in October 2000. As Snoopy, that sage, protests when urged to chase a rabbit, "I am a sleeping dog. Take it from there." Ditto the show.
* "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," Ambassador Theatre, 219 W. 49th St., New York. Telecharge: (800) 432-7250.